Tag Archives: Pre-Raphaelites

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Bocca Baciata

4 Aug

Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent 1850s in a mood of indolence and love; he was infatuated with Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful red-haired Pre-Raphaelite model who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia, and he mainly painted pencil drawings of Siddal and watercolours of idealised Medieval scenes. He wasn’t as productive in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite as he was in his later years when he filled his canvases with seductive, dreamy women with luscious full lips and voluminous hair; “Bocca Baciata” is the painting that started it all.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

The half-length portrait shows a woman dressed in an unbuttoned black garment with gold details, while the white undergarments coyly peek through. Her neck is long and strong, her head slightly tilted, lips full and closed, eyes heavy-lidded and gazing in the distance. On her left is an apple, and she’s holding a small pot marigold in her hand. She is full, voluptuous, strong, possessing none of Siddal’s delicate, melancholic, laudanum-chic beauty, but one thing they have in common: beautiful hair. Model for the painting was Fanny Cornforth who was described as having “harvest yellow” hair colour, but here Rossetti painted it as a warm, rich coppery colour which goes beautifully with the orange marigolds and gold jewellery around her neck and in her hair. Rossetti must have borrowed the brush of Veronese himself when he painted those masses of lascivious wild hair that flows and flows, seemingly endless, ready to wrap itself around the neck of its victims. Gazing at Pre-Raphaelite paintings has taught me that the famous Victorian saying which goes: “hair is the crown of woman’s beauty” is wrong. Hair is not the crown, but the weapon, ready to seduce a man, ready to suffocate him in a matter of seconds.

What lures me about this painting are the beautiful autumnal colours and pot marigolds that grace the background; they are the flowers which fascinate me the most at the moment. They are the birth flowers for October, appropriate because their orange colour matched that of the falling leaves, and in the Victorian language of flowers they are seen as the symbols of love and jealousy, pain and grief, but this symbolism saddens me. Why bestow such a negative meaning to such an innocent, bright, whimsical flower? Marigolds are known as “summer brides” because they love the sun and I love them; they are so modest and unassuming, you’d fail to notice them in the company of extroverted roses and overwhelming sunflowers, but they hide so much beauty in their small orange petals.

The white rose in her hair symbolises innocence, and this portrait, although sensual, is indeed innocent compared to those which followed. As if the long, flowing fiery hair wasn’t enough, the title, Bocca Baciata, meaning “the mouth that has been kissed”, gives off a sensual mood. The beautiful expression comes from an Italian proverb from Boccaccio’s Decameron which Rossetti wrote on the back of the painting: “The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savour, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.” The line is a reference to a story from Decameron told on the second day, about a Saracen princess who, despite having numerous lovers, managed to persuade the King of Algarve that she was a virgin bride.

“Bocca Baciata” is both stylistically and technically a transitional work. It is Rossetti’s first oil painting in years, the previous one being “Ecce Ancilla Domini” from 1850. The luxurious, sensuous mood is a reference to High Italian Renaissance, more specifically, the art of Titian and Veronese and their long-haired women. The main characteristic of Venetian art is the beautiful colour; space, volume is built with colour, not with line, and Rossetti used this principle hear, using soft shadings on the skin of her neck and in building the hair, stroke by stroke. Also, inspired by Titian, he used red colour as a base of his canvas, not the usual white. “Bocca Baciata” is not just a beautiful harmony of warm colours, but it also set a pattern of a style of painting typical for the art of late Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Symbolism, where a beautiful woman occupies a canvas, exuding sensuality, vanity and indolence, dressed in luxurious fabrics and surrounded by other objects of beauty such as flowers, mirrors, fans and jewellery. These types of paintings are not portraits with individual characteristics of a person, but a never ending series of visual representations of female sexual allure.

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

2 Jun

Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is one exceedingly beautiful, vivacious and dreamy painting set in a resplendent garden covered with a flimsy veil of purple dusk in late summer, August perhaps, when nature is at its most vulnerable and autumn creeps in bringing chill evenings and morning mists, and starts adorning the landscape with a melancholic beauty. Two little girls dressed in white gowns are playing with Chinese lanterns in this magical “secret” garden where lilies, carnations and roses appear enlivened by the nocturnal air and soft caresses of twilight.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86

This is my favourite painting at the moment and despite its, at first sight obvious, aesthetic appeal, it is much more than a visual delight. It awakens my every sense; I can almost hear the laughter of the fair-haired girls as they watch the lanterns with admiration and curiosity; and the enchanting melodies sung by the flowers; I can smell the thick and sweet fragrance of carnations, dearer to me than any perfume – I might pick a few for my vase; and I can almost feel the grass tickling my legs, oh it makes me giggle…

Gentle blades of grass seem to dance in the sweet, but fleeting melody of the dusk. White lilies laugh, their whiteness overpowering the shine of the lanterns, and relish in throwing mischievous glances around the garden, spreading gossips. Pink roses that spent their days in daydreams, have now awoken, keen not to miss all the fun that the night has to offer. Pretty yellow carnations, with thousands of little petals, each adorned with a divine perfume, are naughty little things. Girls’ white dresses, glistening in pink overtones from the dusky light, flutter in the evening breeze. Very soon, a game will begin; a game in which lanterns and moonbeams will be competing in beauty and splendour… As dusk turns into night, the lights of the moon will colour the garden in silver, secrets and dreams… When all is quiet and children are asleep, the flowers and the moon will converse. If you’re eager to know the mysteries of their language I suggest you to follow the trail of rose petals and silver all the way to one of the famous opium dens in Victorian era Limehouse, and once there, lie on the soft oriental cushions that glisten in dim lights and smokes arising and dancing in the tepid air, and wait for Morpheus to visit your soul in a slumber, for we all know that the poppy seeds never lie.

This painting is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also reminds me of all sorts of things; first on the magical garden in the film Coraline (2009) where flowers are alive and naughty, and cat talks, then to the film Secret Garden (1993) which is based on book I’ve not yet read, and also on Syd Barrett and the lyrics to some of his song;”Flaming” and “Wined and Dined”.

John Singer Sargent, Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884

This is just an utterly beautiful and dreamy painting, but its technical aspects are equally interesting. First of all, the details and the very fine brushwork are amazing, and they irresistibly remind us of Pre-Raphaelites, and we know from the letters that Sargent was obsessed with them since the autumn of 1883, which he spent in Sienna.

The inspiration for the painting comes not from pure imagination but from a real event; one evening, in September 1885, he was sailing on a boat down the Thames with a friend and he saw Chinese lanterns glowing among trees and lilies. That special velvety pink-purplish dusky colour palette was achieved by directly gazing at nature in dusk, which meant it took him an awful lot of time to actually finish the painting. It was painted “en plein air” or “outdoors” which was typical for the Impressionists but uncommon for Sargent. He painted it in two stages; first from September to early November of 1885, and then in the late summer of 1886, and finished it sometime in October 1886. He spent only a few minutes painting each evening, at dusk, capturing its purplish glow, and then continue the next evening. He found the process of painting difficult, writing to his sister Emily: “Impossible brilliant colours of flowers and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, & then the effect only lasts ten minutes.” And when autumn came, he would use fake flowers instead of real ones.

Two girls in the paintings are the 11-year old Dolly on the left, and her sister Polly, seven years old at the time; daughters of Sargent’s friend and an illustrator Frederick Barnard. They were chosen because of their hair colour. The original model was a 5-year old dark-haired Katherine, daughter of the painter Francis David Millet, and she was allegedly very upset that Sargent had replaced her. Poor girl! Also, the lovely title of the paintings comes from the refrain of the song “Ye Shepherds Tell Me” by Joseph Mazzinghi.

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 72.4 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 875)

“Garden Study of the Vickers Children” is a some kind of a draught, a rehearsal for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”; both paintings were painted en plein air and both show children in a garden; childhood innocence was a theme often exploited in the arts of the 19th century because it appealed to the Victorian sentiments immensely, and both show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, in “Vickers Children” he uses bolder brushstrokes and the colour palette is all but magical; dull white, green and black. Sargent is said to have made more studies for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” than he did for any other of his paintings. Some of these studies you can see here, and they are simply gorgeous, they have such ardour and liveliness and there’s a real magic coming from those quick, visible brushstrokes; look at those lanterns, shaped in swift, round strokes of warm magical colours, and quick ones for the blades of grass and tints of rich red for flowers, ah…. This is the beauty that Dante must have had in mind when he said “Beauty awakens the soul to act.” These paintings awaken my soul!

Here you can listen a composition by Meilyr Jones inspired by this painting. Can you spare a second to think just how exciting it is to make a composition inspired by a painting, and such a beautiful painting?!

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 872)

The scene irresistibly reminds me of John Everett Millais’s beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves”; both are very detailed with fine brushstrokes, set in a fleeting moment of the day – dusk, and show girls in nature, just in different seasons. Sargent’s painting is “magic”, while Millais’s is “melancholy”. Still, I feel a touch of sadness behind Sargent’s dreamy garden scene, brought on by the understanding of its transience and the fleeting nature of everything that is beautiful and magical in this world. Dusk lasts so shortly, and for a moment its charm will be replaced by darkness and chill air of night; Summer – which gives nature vivacity, colours and joy, will fall into the decadence of autumn. Unveil this beauty, the glow of lanterns and the fragrance of flowers, and you shall see decay – the garden in its future barren winter state. First the yellow leaves, then the white snowflakes, will cover the places where roses grew and nightingales sang their songs of love and longing; to quote Heinrich Heine:

“Over my bed a strange tree gleams

And there a nightingale is loud.

 She sings of love, love only . . .

I hear it, even in dreams.”

And girls who are now innocent children will became adults, insensitive towards the beauty they once gleefully inhabited.

The very first glance at Sargent’s painting reminded me of this sentence from the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”: “‘Wined and Dined’ has an undertow of sadness, sung in the most fragile of voices, lingering in twilight at an August garden party he never wanted to leave.” That beautiful, sad and poignant song dates from Syd’s days in Cambridge, when he was a happy man and life was idyllic, all “white lace and promises”, just like in the song of The Carpenters. This magical garden scene where flowers giggle, gossip and chatter in the purple veil of dusk, and lanterns glow ever so brightly is what I imagine Syd was in his mind; the August party he never wanted to leave… Thinking about it always makes me cry, it is so very sad. That “undertow of sadness”, this gentle fleetingness of the moment is exactly what I see in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and in all of Syd’s songs.

In the acid-laced song “Flaming”, Syd sings of “watching buttercups cup the light, sleeping on a dandelion and screaming through the starlit sky” creating a visual scene that matches Sargent’s painting in its magic, but this childlike cheerfulness descended into a sad, wistful elegy to better days, “Wined and Dined“(version on the “Opel” sounds especially sad and poignant):

Wined and dined
Oh it seemed just like a dream
Girl was so kind
Kind of love I’d never seen

Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…

Move the flimsy veil from beauty, melancholy thou shall find.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

They are things which are so intensely beautiful that I am not sure whether they produce as much pleasure as pain. They fill the heart with delight and longings all at once – such is the effect this painting has on me; first it lures me, and then it saddens me… But hush now, hush, reality, and let me enjoy the sweetness of this magical garden for another moment… Oh yes, I can feel the softness of the grass, see the lights of the lanterns, smell the carnations, can you?

Elizabeth Siddal – All changes pass me like a dream

23 May

Famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his beautiful melancholic muse, Elizabeth Siddal, who was the walking epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty with her lavish masses of coppery golden hair, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes and heavy-lidded gaze, married on the 23th May 1860 in the seaside town of Hastings. Last year on their wedding anniversary, I posted one Rossetti’s poems, and this year here’s one called “Love and Hate” by Lizzie herself.

I remember when I fell in love with Pre-Raphaelites, in August 2014, in one of those afternoons of late summer, rain had lingered for days, sky was coloured in greys, chill air in twilight seemed to whisper that autumn is coming, and every time I picked red rosebuds I treasured them as if they were the season’s last jewels, my soul already soaked in that special combination of melancholy and sweetness which occurs only in autumn when rustling leaves bring me delight and yet I feel overwhelmed by the transience of everything in nature and our lives of humans – it was in those days that I gazed for long hours at Millais’s beautiful Ophelia and idealised the image of a drowned girl, and the red-haired maiden who posed for the painting, reading about her destiny and slowly discovering her poetry, laced with sadness, its verses spoke of love and death. A particular verse has been my favourite since those days, I have it written on my wall, and I almost feel it etched into my soul:

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

Lizzie Siddal posed for Ophelia and died an equally tragic death (is there a non-tragic death?); she overdosed on laudanum. Onyx black poppy seeds from that fragile yet passionate red flower, lulled her to eternal sleep. Rossetti dramatically buried his book of poems with her coffin, only to have it exhumed years later. Their tumulus relationship was the main source of inspiration for her poetry. I can understand her sadness, but Rossetti’s infidelities I cannot. With that beautiful gem at home, why on earth would he ever want to spend time with other women? Wasn’t his idol Dante content with just daydreaming about Beatrice?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

Love and Hate

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – I was a child beneath her touch….

12 May

Today would have been Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s birthday and I will take that as an excuse to share with you my favourite poem of his, “The Kiss”, along with some drawings he did of his darling Lizzie Siddal. I especially love the second stanza of the poem and also here you can watch a short video of Aidan Turner who played Rossetti in the BBC show “Desperate Romantics” reciting the poem.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’ (1853)

John Everett Millais – The Vale of Rest

3 Dec

Painting ‘The Vale of Rest’ isn’t as famous as Ophelia, nor as vibrant and richly coloured as Mariana or The Blind Girl, but it is certainly one of Millais’ most atmospheric paintings, and also the one whose mystery can’t be solved despite all the details, symbols and hints, typical for early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Roman Catholic nuns on a graveyard in the dusk of an autumn day. Mood of mystery, anxiety and secrecy.

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01507John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

Dusk of a late Autumn day. Poplar trees are looming on the horizon. Tombstones coated in moss; names of the dead nearly erased with time, their lives now mere legends. Sky dazzles with purple, vanilla yellow and pink-lavender shades as chillness descends in this walled enclosure. A contour of a low chapel with a bell. Two Roman Catholic nuns. One digging a grave, the other – observing with a worried look on her face, and clutching a rosary in her hand. Art critic Tom Lubbock said of the painting: ‘Corpses, secrets, conspiracy, fear. It’s a picture that pulls out all the stops.’ The whole scene evokes mystery. Why is the nun digging a grave? Is it a burial, or an exhumation? What secrets are they hiding, and whose body lies in the cold, dark soil. Then the subject of Catholic nuns – still an object of scepticism in Victorian Britain.

a-vale-of-rest-2

Millais intended this painting to be a pendant to Spring or The Apple Blossoms (1856-59) where the subject of death is only hinted, but here it is fully exposed. There’s a skull on the nun’s rosary, and in the sky there’s a purple cloud vaguely shaped like a coffin – a harbinger of death, according to a Scots legend. As if the sight of a graveyard in the dusk isn’t unsettling enough, Millais incorporated these little morbid details. As you can see, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are like books, you can read them by observing the details and symbols, which can always be interpreted in a different way.

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Although he had carried the idea of painting nuns in his mind for some time, Millais ventured into painting this scene one night in late October in 1858, when the appearance of the sky, shining in gold and purple shades, was especially pleasing to him. He had to work with his brush quickly because, as it goes in autumn, sky is beautiful and vibrant for one moment, and a second later all is dark and cold once again. Still, the idea occurred to him earlier, while on his honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. His wife Effie recalled: ‘On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion, and transported ourselves, in idea, back to the times before the Reformation had torn down, with bigoted zeal, all that was beautiful from antiquity, or sacred from the piety or remorse of the founders of old ecclesiastical building in this country. The abbots fished and boated in the loch, the vesper bell pealed forth the ‘Ave Maria’ at sundown, and the organ notes of the Virgin’s hymn were carried by the water and transformed into a sweeter melody, caught up on the hillside and dying away in the blue air. We pictured, too, white-robed nuns in boats, singing on the water in the quiet summer evenings, and chanting holy songs, inspired by the loveliness of the world around them…‘ (source)

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Millais painted the sky, trees and shrubs sitting just outside the front door, in the garden of Effie’s family at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie said: ‘It was about the end of October, and he got on very rapidly with the trees and worked every afternoon, patiently and faithfully, at the poplar and oak trees of the background until November, when the leaves had nearly all fallen.‘ The grave and the tombstones were painted a few months later at Kinnoull old churchyard in Perth. There’s a funny story connected to it. So, as Millais was painting at the graveyard daily, two strange or ‘queer’ bachelors, known by the names ‘Sin’ and ‘Misery’, noticed him and assumed that he made a living by painting the graves of deceased persons. So, they brought him wine and cakes every day, to reward his everyday hardships.

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To end this post, I have to say that Millais is, in my opinion, the master of painting dusks and capturing moods and psychological states in a lyrical way; in Mariana, he portrayed her longing and loneliness, and even here you can sense a certain tension, or a deeper emotional connection between two nuns, even perhaps a game of power; while one is digging, tired, with rolled up sleeves, the other sits calmly, though her direct gaze at the viewer reveals anxiety and worry. Millais perfectly captured the colours of an autumn dusk; even softening the gold and purple, according to Effie. In ‘The Vale of Rest’, he perfectly captured the mood, just like he did in his painting ‘Autumn Leaves’, 1856.

Still, after analysing this painting, and observing its every detail, every symbol and every brushstroke, I can’t solve the mystery behind it. Perhaps it was never meant to be solved, but enjoyed. And I certainly did; drowned in its dusky mood and morbid, doomy beauty.

Fall, Leaves, Fall – Emily Bronte’s Verses on Autumn…

16 Oct

I love this poem by Emily Bronte and since it is Autumn, oh finally, the beautiful season of rains, mists, falling leaves and rich colours, I thought I’d share it with you, my lovely readers, accompanied by an equally beautiful painting ‘Autumn Leaves’ by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

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John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

Fall, leaves, fall – Emily Bronte

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
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